When asked the secret to success by a reporter, the billionaire sixth Duke of Westminster, inheritor of Central London’s priciest property and the U.K.’s third richest man, answered candidly: “Make sure you have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror.” His aristocratic family hailed from Norman France and had the good luck and foresight to join William in the 11th century conquest of Anglo-Saxon Britain. The now-deceased duke knew that his wealth and status were accidents of history. It takes only a slight stretch of this story to understand the inherent unfairness of legacy advantage at Yale and the Ivy League.
Admissions has cemented a type of aristocracy in the U.S. There is no principled defense for legacy in a democracy. At its crudest, legacy status is an award for being born into the right family. I’m sure some people worked very hard to have Yale alumni for parents, but for most mortals that is not a choice.
Inherited privilege should have no quarter at Yale. Even without legacy status, many children of alumni would (and do) make it here because they deserve it. As much as I want my children to come here, I do not want them to take opportunities away from more deserving candidates. They should be accepted on their own merits.
The legacy advantage is an affront to the very notion that all people are created equal, and deserve a fair shot at the American Dream. When Yale gives explicit preference to children of its alumni, it endorses the idea that worth in society comes from unearned privilege — something so abhorrent to the founders that they abolished titles of nobility in the Constitution.
It is also a way of entrenching white privilege. Going by the arithmetic of admissions over the centuries, the overwhelming majority of beneficiaries will be white. An institution that only recently — and miraculously — discovered the equal worth of Jews, women and people of color, will continue to promote predominantly the children of the Mayflower and more generally those who had the first-mover’s advantage in coming to Yale.
If someone defends legacy on the grounds of maintaining a type of culture, you should roll your eyes at them for their lazy, unsubtle racism. The same applies for those who argue that private colleges should have infinite discretion in admitting students. It was these very arguments that excluded minorities for centuries. Even private colleges have obligations to society, and one of those is creating a place of equal opportunity.
But do not mistake me. No one should have that privilege — not even minorities. We should not be prepared to swap a racist and classist system for an exclusively classist one. Because anyone who comes to Yale is immediately elevated to a class of their own. So many opportunities are opened up to the alumni of this institution already.
It still remains to be seen whether we can justify the advantage given to legacy applicants on expediency rather than principle. Proponents argue that legacy status does two things. First, it incentivizes alumni to give back. This is undoubtedly true. I have heard many stories of alumni impulsively closing the tap of donations as soon as their son or daughter were rejected, whereas accepted children leads to happier, more gracious alumni. Second, alumni generally pay full tuition, and hence subsidize the tuition of low-income students.
However, the question is whether Yale as an institution should be beholden to alumni donations for its finances. Presumably, the point of a multibillion dollar endowment is its self-sustainability. It seems ludicrous that Yale should have to compromise its principles in a never-ending arms race between Ivies for larger endowments.
If eliminating legacy status in admissions would result in lower income for the University, so what? Perhaps we should start dipping into the endowment if it means a more equitable campus. Money is only meaningful for an institution insofar as it can pursue its goals. Money for the sake of money is an idle, fruitless endeavor reserved for mundane companies with shareholders.
Yale is, or should be, primarily dedicated to the pursuit of a better society — one that truly believes in the American Dream of social mobility.
Even if you accept that the University should rely on alumni, there are far better ways of accruing vast sums of money while mitigating the harms of legacy status. I will put forward a proposal I heard from a senior University official: Yale should abolish the legacy advantage but reserve one to three spots in each class to be auctioned off. Imagine the tens of millions of dollars Yale’s Croesuses would throw at the University for those precious spots! If we accept legacy status as the money-making mechanism that it is, why not perfect that system and mitigate the harm to equity?
Adam Krok is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .